The Broadway touring production of the Tony Award winning musical, “An American in Paris,” is playing at the Ordway through Sunday. It is lush, it’s Gershwin performed by a live orchestra, and it's splendid. If you can possibly get to see it before it leaves town, you should,
“An American in Paris” was the title Gershwin gave his 1928 “symphonic poem.” He wrote it in homage to the City of Light, where he had just spent several months. 23 years later the music became the basis of a 1951 musical film, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and decades after that, the Gershwin family approached the Broadway producer. Stuart Oken, to ask him to adapt the movie into a Broadway musical. Oken agreed, on the condition that he would have considerable license to update the property to reflect a more contemporary sensibility.
In fact, the play more or less leaves the spine-less movie (a monument to vagueness if ever there was one) behind. The new book by Craig Lucas is far more substantial than Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay, and it broaches some interesting and relatively sophisticated questions about memory and forgetting and the after-effects of war.
Lucas moves the setting back a few years to the immediate aftermath of the Occupation. A breathtaking opening sequence balances the Liberation jubilation on the Paris streets with scenes of lingering brutality and retribution. The climate of secrecy and repression doesn't instantly disappear; war has an afterlife. Fear and suspicion only gradually subside after the debacle has ended. We meet a young American soldier, Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), stationed in Paris, and so enchanted by the City of Light that he gives up his ticket back home. Jerry wants to leave the past behind and pursue his dream of becoming a famous artist, but his heart is bruised by the horrible death of his war buddy. We also meet an aspiring composer, Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) who was injured in the war. Like Jerry he has seen too much. Adam, who also chooses to remain in Paris, is too depressed to finish his symphony and too cynical to stop making jokes. Lisa Dassin (Sara Esty), a mysterious French ballerina, walks hurriedly with her eyes cast down and her shoulders hunched over to avoid attracting attention to herself. After Mulligan rescues Dassin from the French hoodlums who harass her, he tries to introduce himself, but she rushes off. It's too late, of course. Mulligan is already in love, and once he finds her again he is reluctant to let go. Dassin shares his feelings but for reasons she won't explain she refuses to allow the romance to flourish. She agrees only to meet Jerry for one-hour each day by the Seine.
Only later do we learn the cause of Dassin’s behavior: she is Jewish and spent the war in hiding; and she now feels obligated to marry Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), the son of the family who sheltered and took care of her. Baurel is kind and well-meaning, but Dassin does not feel the passion for him that she now feels for Mulligan. There are additional, and sometimes intricate sub-plots, incorporating Henri, Hochberg and a visiting American heiress, Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti). Lucas’s dialogue is smart throughout and he skillfully manages to let us glimpse the unique and often idiosyncratic ways that the various characters struggle to move forward. That said, much of the story is told through the dancing.
Christopher Wheeldon won a Tony for the choreography and the dance sequences are electric and richly theatrical. The motif of liberation takes expression in the action of rising – at times Dassin’s feet seem barely to touch the ground (lithe and pettit, Esty is a wisp of a creature, and Maddox, tall, with an athletic physique, can carry her aloft for long stretches). This airborne effect – the sense of the dancer floating - is complimented by gorgous projections of the Seine, the starry skies, Notre Dame, and crumbly, gold-lit Paris streets and later by reproductions of Mondrian, Picasso and other abstract artists. The delicate, ethereal red-and-black pas de deux that is the climax of the 2nd Act's famous mini-ballet is romantic and sexy as dance sequeence I've ever seen.
Wheeldon has written about the challenge of finding quadruple threats to cast in the leading roles. Esty and Maddox are not only remarkable dancers (both were principals with major ballet companies) -- she can dance en pointe and Maddox can leap like a champion (he can also tap like a pro); they are also terrific singers and they can act. All the dancers in the production are good and their synchronicity and precision make the group dance sections riveting
The score of the show includes Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,” and “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture,” as well as a generous supply of classic Gershwin showtunes (“’S wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) as well as a few of his (and Ira’s) lesser known songs. There are also some unexpected pleasures: the chair dance that accompanies the witty “Fidgety Feet” is fabulous. Gershwin’s music is at turns frenetic and inexpressibly sad, evoking the tension between homesickness and local enchantment that defined the post-war expatriate experience. The full orchestra features three saxophones (though Gershwin had initially actually wanted four).
What makes An American in Paris a great play is the way it all comes together -- book, lyrics, the sets and lighting, the live orchestra, the dancers and the dancing, the voices and perfect cast– and some of Gershwin's best compositions. It's a moving, transporting spectacle that should not be missed.
First American Tour of the Tony Award-winning Broadway Production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, performing at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through June 18th, 2017.
7:30 PM, Friday June 16, Saturday June 17
2:00 PM Saturday, June 17, Sunday June 18
Accessible Performance on Saturday, June 17th, 2:00 PM (ASL/AD)
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
345 Washington Street
St. Paul, Minnesota 55102
Ticket Officce: 651-224-4222